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Blu-rays of the Week
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood
One of the Criterion Collection’s best recent boxed sets is this six-disc journey through the groundbreaking films made by director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including such classics as Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express. Dietrich’s persona—aloof but endlessly fascinating—was cemented through these pictures, and von Sternberg provided the most elegant vehicles for her talent.
The new hi-def transfers of these 80-plus-year-old B&W films are nothing short of astonishing; many extras include new and archival featurettes and interviews.
Jonas Carpignano’s second feature, set amid Roma families in southern Italy, is an arresting, quasi-documentary look at a teenage boy whose close-knit family is shaken up when dad and older brother are taken in by the police. Our young protagonist discovers that being head of the household is not as easy as it looks.
With a non-professional cast (including several members of the same family), there’s a certain roughness in parts, but the authenticity of these people and their home are delicately wrought. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary; Cannes featurette; deleted scenes; and Carpignano’s original A Ciambra short.
This star-studded 2011 production of the Mozart classic—with Peter Mattei as the Don, Bryn Terfel as his servant Leporello, and veterans Barbara Frittoli and Anna Netrebko and young Anna Prohaska as the women in his life—is complemented by Daniel Barenboim conducting the La Scala orchestra for three hours of operatic bliss.
Director Robert Carsen smartly keeps his powerhouse cast front and center; first-rate hi-def video and audio completes the picture.
Endeavour—Complete 5th Season
Wherein recently promoted Endeavour Morse, his worldlier partner Thursday and new recruit Fancy solve more crimes, including murder in a movie house and the theft of a valuable Fabergé egg.
The six self-contained episodes make up several hours of sheer entertainment, made most palatable by the performances of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and newcomer Lewis Peek, all of whom enjoying good chemistry. The British countryside looks great on Blu.
DVDs of the Week
Rosario Dawson is a knockout as the title character, a male fantasy of a damaged single mom: a former stripper, hooker and addict who turns grown men into putty and a young man, barely older than her son, into a reasonable facsimile of an adult.
William Macy directs Will Aldis’s threadbare script with over-insistent whimsy, which turns rom-com material into leaden melodrama; the rest of the cast—Nick Robinson, Felicity Huffman, Macy himself, Kathy Bates, and William Fichtner—has its moments but too much of Krystal is cringeworthy as it attempts being sentimental and offbeat simultaneously, like Macy’s Showtime series Shameless.
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 5th Season
This latest release collects all 24 episodes from the penultimate 1971-72 season of the comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, the perfect ringmasters for a loony stew of goofy jokes and skits, with musical interludes and political satire making appearances as well.
The first episode features the only time then “world’s biggest sex symbol” Raquel Welch came on the show; there’s also the usual motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Richard Dawson, Gary Owens, Lily Tomlin) and other guest stars like Hugh Hefner, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and Rita Hayworth that help celebrate a milestone like the series’ 100th episode.
Mary Page Marlowe
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through August 12, 2018
Tatiana Maslany (right) in Mary Page Marlowe (photo: Joan Marcus)
Tracy Letts, one of most consistent playwrights, has tripped up with his latest, Mary Page Marlowe. One woman’s life in 11 scenes dramatized in non-chronological order, the play seems a riposte against his own epic study of dysfunction, August: Osage County, which for three hours brilliantly wallowed in the worst family members do to one another. Linking Osage and Mary Page is the central character’s predilection for alcohol, a cause of Mary Page’s difficulties in a life lived in the margins.
In these desultory scenes, her mismatched parents (cheating father, drinking mother) squabble, she confides in college friends that she refuses her beau’s marriage proposal, she gets married, has two kids and affairs, gets a divorce, gets remarried twice, gets jail time for a DUI, etc.
Letts’ decision to present rearranged scenes from a life feels uncomfortably contrived as a way to give significance to something that is anything but. Unsurprisingly, each scene is intelligently written, concise and pointed; the telling opening—when 40-year-old Mary Page (an impressively harried Susan Pourfar) tells her children, 15-year-old Wendy and 12-year-old Louis, why she and their father are divorcing—is a lovely look at ordinary people that has humor, pathos and insight. Other scenes might be questionably included—do we need to see her adulterous dad and put-upon mom argue while their 10-month-old cries in the next room?—but they are sharply observed, showing Letts’ ability to empathize and show life’s essential absurdity without any condescension.
Along with the excellent Pourfar, five other actresses play Mary Page. Standing out are Kellie Overbey, putting an empathetic point on the 50-year-old’s discussing her impending prison term with her second husband, and Blair Brown, sublimely portraying an older, maybe wiser heroine. Best of all is Tatiana Maslany, whose Mary Page at ages 27 and 36 provides moments of remarkable acuity and beautiful subtlety: her amusing back and forth with a shrink about her adultery is followed by a hotel tryst with her boss that for once allows her to be a formidable woman and a sexual being; these scenes hint at the tougher, more incisive play that might have been.
Despite Letts’ bravura writing of individual moments, it finally adds up to little as we are no further along to understanding or sympathizing with this woman at the end as we were 90 minutes earler: a few more scenes would fill out missing links in her relationships and sense of self-worth. Director Lila Neugebauer’s sensitive staging helps, to a point: the final coup of all Mary Pages on the upper level of Laura Jellinek’s cleverly two-tiered set watching the final scene underlines what’s missing: a life lived to its fullest, which these snapshots do not add up to.
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Music by Burton Lane; book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Adapted and directed by Charlotte Moore
Performances through September 6, 2018
Stephen Bogardus and Melissa Errico in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (photo: Carol Rosegg)
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has had a troubled history since its 1965 Broadway premiere. The convoluted musical about clairvoyance and reincarnation was only marginally successful in its initial run, garnering Tony nods for stars Barbara Harris and John Cullum; Vincente Minnelli’s infamous 1970 movie version, with Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand and Jack Nicholson (in a role expressly written for the film), came next, followed by the flop 2011 Broadway revival, for which Alan Jay Lerner’s book was so thoroughly re-written as to be completely—as opposed to mostly—nonsensical. (It also wasted Harry Connick Jr. and a newcomer named Jessie Mueller.)
Now there’s Charlotte Moore’s paring-down at the Irish Rep: a cast of four dozen is down to 11, and an orchestra of 31 is now a mere five. But problems remain, all still wedded to the material; it seems impossible to satisfyingly weld together the show’s parallel plots of contemporary New Yawker Daisy and her hypnosis by psychiatrist Mark, and Daisy’s possible previous life as an 18th century free spirit named Melinda, whom Marc falls for.
Maybe back in the swinging ‘60s, things like ESP and time-travel relationships would have had more currency (the whole show seems to have been conjured with the help of hallucinogenics), but today they just seem risible. Daisy is rightfully upset by Mark’s affection for a woman from the recesses of Daisy’s mind; but it’s Mark who declares in frustration (!): “What a masterpiece of perversity a woman is…Oh, God! Why did you not make women first, when you were fresh?”
Such sexism might be excused by the 50 years that separate us from when it was written, but infelicities are legion, and even Moore’s deft concision ends up hurting—Warren, Daisy’s boyfriend, has been dropped, which trims the running time and cuts a subplot but also sets Daisy further adrift, allowing Mark’s infatuation with Melinda to take center stage.
Melissa Errico is a delightful Daisy, with a shimmeringly lovely voice, but she unaccountably remains a cipher throughout what’s supposedly her own story. Stephen Bogardus makes a respectable Mark, but the two leads rarely connect intimately, which is fatal for a bizarre tale that’s already being told at some remove.
Moore resourcefully uses projected artworks on the back walls (projection design by Ryan Belock) to give a sense of Manhattan and London locales, and the small-ensemble arrangements give the songs a pleasant cabaret-style quality. But Lane’s songs, tuneful as they are, are not his best (only “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here” approaches being a standard), and coupled with Lerner’s serviceable but often pedestrian lyrics, the show is a mess of epic proportions, even when downsized and trimmed, sensibly but, ultimately, ineffectually.
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY
The Virgin Spring
Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1960 chamber film is a stark drama based on a medieval folk tale about a young woman whose rape-murder prompts a fresh-water spring to appear where she was killed. Somber and brutal, but in Bergman’s masterly hands, it’s also an intelligent and perceptive look at guilt and revenge, with the usual forceful acting by such superlative Swedes as Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson.
The new Criterion hi-def transfer makes Sven Nykvist’s B&W photography even more transfixing; extras are a commentary, Ang Lee intro, 2005 interviews with Lindblom and Pettersson and a 1975 Bergman audio interview.
La Campana Sommersa/The Sunken Bell
Italian master Ottorino Respighi composed his dramatically diffuse but musically succulent opera in 1927, and like his other stage works, it’s rarely performed; happily, this 2016 Cagliari (Italy) production lets us reevaluate the stageworthiness of one of his most beautiful scores.
Conducted by Donato Denzetti, who superbly leads the Cagliari Theater orchestra and chorus, this bizarre, surreal work has exemplary lead performances and attractive colors in the music and Pier Francisco Maestrini’s staging. The hi-def audio and video are excellent.
One of Mozart’s earliest operas to keep a tenuous hold in the repertoire is this tragic historical drama set during the Roman Empire. In his elegant 2017 Madrid production, director Claus Guth keeps things moving with studied elegance, which helps the musty plot keep its hold on viewers.
Conductor Ivor Bolton impressively leads the Teatro Real orchestra and chorus, and the top-notch performers are led by Patricia Petibon, a fiery soprano who sings eloquently and acts with sheer verve. The hi-def video and audio are also impressive.
Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 blaxploitation classic is definitely of its era, set in a rundown Harlem where a drug dealer looks for one last score so he can retire. Despite (because of?) its un-P.C. rawness, it works handily, thanks to Ron O’Neal in the lead and Sheila Frazier as his faithful girlfriend.
On the soundtrack is Curtis Mayfield’s classic soul—Mayfield and his band even have a scintillating club performance cameo. A grainy period look dominates on Blu-ray; extras are a commentary, interviews and retrospective making-of documentary.
Often considered Shakespeare’s worst play, this early effort has more eyes-look-away gore and gruesome imagery than his other works combined; still, it usually provides a visceral jolt in the theater, as Blanche McIntyre’s 2017 modern-dress production from the Royal Shakespeare Company shows.
The lopping off of limbs, tongues and heads and the cannibalistic pies remain, but the modern dress contrasts jarringly with such brutal goings-on. Of the actors, Hannah Morrish keeps her dignity as the unfortunate Lavinia and David Troughton makes a stentorian Titus, but the juiciest parts—evil queen Tamora and even more evil moor Aaron—are played indifferently by Nia Gwynne and Stefan Adegbola. The Blu-ray has solid hi-def video and audio; extras are McIntyre’s commentary, cast and crew interviews.
Tommy Shaw—Sing for the Day
The Styx guitarist and singer performed with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra in Cleveland in 2016 and the infectiousness is there in the kids’ smiles as they play instruments and sing backup to Shaw and his acoustic (and occasional electric) guitar.
Shaw, at age 63, is in fantastically good voice: he hits all the notes on Styx staples “Fooling Yourself,” “Boat on the River,” “Sing for the Day,” “Man in the Wilderness” and “Renegade,” and he even throws in non-Styx tunes like “Girls with Guns” and “High Enough.” Both hi-def audio and video are first-rate; lone extra is audio of four additional songs.
Tristan und Isolde
This 1981 concert of Richard Wagner’s mournfully romantic opera has Leonard Bernstein (this release commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth) leading the Bayerischen Rundfunks orchestra and chorus in a gripping performance.
If Peter Hoffman’s Tristan lacks depth and weight, Hildegard Behrens’ Isolde is the real deal, saving her most powerful singing for the finale (which is when we want it). It’s not perfect, but it’s typical of Bernstein’s impassioned performances, when he is sweating bullets by the end. The hi-def video and audio are acceptable enough, considering the aged source material.
2 Weeks in Another Town
Another Hollywood behind-the-scenes exposé from director Vincente Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas (following 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful), this 1962 drama moves the action to Rome for an intermittently absorbing exploration of backstabbing on and off the set.
Kirk Douglas does well as the has-been star intent on making a comeback, and then-ingenue Daliah Lavi is a delight as the young actress he falls for, but veterans like Cyd Cherisse, Edward G. Robinson and James Gregory aren’t given a chance to do much with their hollow characters. The widescreen hi-def transfer looks sumptuous.
Cezanne: Portraits of a Life
(Seventh Art Productions)
Narrated by Brian Cox, this informative and visually stunning overview of Cezanne’s life and art—with particular emphasis on the Cezanne Portraits exhibition that closes this weekend at Washington’s National Gallery of Art—is a solid appreciation of one of the 20th century’s most important (and still misunderstood) artists.
As always with these Exhibition on Screen entries, the visuals are entrancing—and disappointing: the back cover touts this as being shot in 4K, but that this is only available on DVD defeats the purpose of shooting it in ultra hi-def.
The latest from French director Arnaud Desplechin—whose films are so crammed with detail, incident, characterization and location that they resemble cinematic versions of long novels—centers on a director making a film about his estranged (and politically shady) brother, and brilliantly and effortlessly moves along separate but equally absorbing paths, both real and fake.
The intrigue is especially delicious served up by a formidable cast headed by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg—who gives what may be her best screen performance as our hero’s current love. It’s just too bad that such a rich, rewarding and rewatchable film is only available on DVD. Isn’t it 2018?
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